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UAE withdraws from US-led maritime coalition

Pullout comes after reports Emirati officials complained to US about its weak response to tanker seizures
US President Joe Biden and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend a meeting in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, on 16 July 2022 (AFP)

The UAE said Wednesday it had exited a US-led multinational security force that protects shipping in the Gulf, in a high-profile sign of the ongoing rift between Washington and a key Middle East security partner.

“As a result of our ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners, two months ago, the UAE withdrew its participation in the Combined Maritime Forces,” the Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday.

The statement was part of a response to a Wall Street Journal article a day earlier which said that Emirati officials had complained to Washington over its weak response to the Islamic Republic’s seizure of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

One oil tanker was seized on 27 April carrying oil from Kuwait to Houston, Texas, for Chevron.

The second tanker, Panama-flagged tanker Niovi, was sailing around the coast of the United Arab Emirates, from Dubai towards Fujairah, when it was stopped by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on 3 May.

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According to the WSJ, that seizure raised concerns in the UAE that its waters would be viewed as unsafe to navigate. The UAE said the report was “a mischaracterisation” of the discussions between US and Emirati officials.

But the UAE is extremely sensitive to any sign of weakness.

UAE-US fissures

The country is a collection of seven small monarchies, or emirates, led by the emirate of Abu Dhabi. It has long punched above its weight in the region with a muscular foreign policy and strict security network that has earned it the nickname "little Sparta" among admirers, but drawn criticism from some human rights activists.

The UAE is a major oil producer, but its wealth is also due to its status as a "wheeling and dealing" hub where business can be conducted safely in a volatile region. Its economy has thrived recently and it has positioned itself as a neutral tax haven zone that has attracted everyone from western influencers to Russian tech workers and Indian moguls.

“This whole model is dependent on the safety, security and stability of people, flow of goods and commodities,” Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, told the WSJ previously.

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The UAE and Washington are allies in counterterrorism, but in recent years strains have emerged in the relationship. Abu Dhabi has moved closer to China and Russia, while Washington has called the UAE a "country of focus" as it looks to crack down on Moscow’s sanctions evasion amid the war in Ukraine.

For its part, Abu Dhabi has been flustered by what it considers Washington’s slow response to its security concerns.

In January, Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a daring attack on Abu Dhabi. Emirati ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, was reportedly so upset by the US response that he later declined a phone call from US President Joe Biden.

Washington later sent a warship and fighter jets to the region and boosted military patrols. However, Officials working for the UAE were later shocked when the US asked that Abu Dhabi pay for added military assistance it received in the aftermath of a drone attack, according to Axios.

While analysts say the UAE views Iran as a major threat, it has recently moved to patch up ties with the Islamic Republic, reappointing an ambassador this year. Abu Dhabi was also at the forefront of efforts to bring Syrian president and Iranian ally, Bashar al-Assad, back into the Arab fold, although Saudi Arabia has taken the lead more recently.

The Emirati pullout comes at an awkward time for the Biden administration, which earlier this month launched a new US Navy task force under the Combined Maritime Forces. The decision came as Washington looks to combat Iran in the region amid stalled nuclear talks and address allies’ concerns about its waning influence.

The Combined Maritime Forces are led out of Bahrain, which is home to the US 5th fleet. It counts 38 member nations including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Germany. The focus of the partnership is on combating maritime attacks on commercial ships, weapons smuggling, and piracy.

A spokesperson for the Combined Maritime Forces said the UAE remains a partner nation, despite putting its participation on hold.

"The CMF still includes 38 partner nations, of which the UAE is one," Commander Timothy Hawkins told AFP.

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